The Human Spirit: Story-filled temporary dwelling
As we enter our succot, those temporary dwellings, let us place the telling and retelling of the stories who came before us at the heart of the conversation.
The Teitelbaum Family Photo: Courtesy
The Teitlebaum family, father Tuvia Teitlebaum, mother Margit Frankfurt
Teitlebaum and their son and six daughters lived in Nyirbator, Hungary, a town
in the northern great plain region of eastern Hungary.
So begins the
story shared at our holiday table. Our guests Ephraim and Rita Greenfield have
recently returned from a most worthy endeavor: gathering family history while it
can still be gathered. They made the effort to interview far-flung family
members, particularly on the side of Ephraim’s late mother, Julia Frankfurt
Greenfield. Her family tree is stunted, with many branches having been amputated
at Auschwitz. What he discovered were remarkable stories, some with happy
endings, too. Here is an example.
Ephraim’s mother’s family lived in
Her parents were pious Jews, active in the Jewish
community. They earned their living by manufacturing soda water. To this day,
homemade soda water is the preferred beverage at the Greenfield table in
His mother’s older sister, Aunt Margit Frankfurt, married
Tuvia Teitlebaum and moved from Nyireghaza to Nyirbator. Like the Frankfurts,
the Teitlebaums were business owners. As each of their children reached
maturity, a new enterprise was created around his or her talents. For instance,
daughter Eva was gifted at handicrafts, so she was sent for artistic training,
and opened a store specializing in finely embroidered clothing and lace
curtains, which she operated even after she was married. Daughter Magda ran a
Daughter Olga worked in the beer business.
the Nazi machine grew, Tuvia Teitlebaum began making arrangements for the family
to emigrate to New Zealand. He engaged tutors to teach his children
But before they could move, the noose closed. On March 19, 1944,
the Nazis occupied Hungary. With escape cut off, Tuvia gathered his family
around him to distribute fast-acting poison. Margit objected. “How do we know?”
she insisted. “Maybe one of our beautiful children will survive.”
Nazis set up an officer’s club in the Teitlebaum house. Margit and Tuvia, and
their six daughters, were shipped in cattle cars to Auschwitz.
daughters were in the same transport, one that was dispatched with haste to the
Indeed, 300,000 Hungarian Jews were hurried directly to
their deaths without getting the cursed numbers of Auschwitz tattooed on their
arms. But on the day the sisters stood together to die, the gas chambers
experienced a rare malfunction. Instead, they were dispatched to a munitions
factory in a camp near Bremen, Germany.
They worked there together,
supporting each other, until the fuel ran out and the factory closed. Bremen was
burning. The six of them were assigned to the forest to chop wood.
war took place over their heads. Parachutes of pilots who had dropped into the
forest from downed planes remained among the trees. Eva, the expert seamstress,
knew what she could do with them. For her sisters, she turned the materials into
sweaters to get them through the icy winter nights. She transformed the white
foam and red material into a Santa Claus for the Germans’ Christmas party. Their
tormentors were charmed, and gave the sisters perks: a blanket and extra
Sisters Nora and Alice, who shared the family artistic talent, were
recruited to make Christmas cards for the officers. And so, in the midst of the
mass murder around them, these religious Jewish sisters were saved by making a
Santa Claus and Christmas cards.
And yet, goodwill goes just so far. As
liberation approached, the same officers invited the Teitlebaum sisters for
coffee and cheese. Following her excellent instincts, Eva insisted they turn
down the invitation.
The food, as it turned out, was poisoned. The Nazis
wanted to wipe out all witnesses of their crimes.
Instead, the young
women were locked in a train and sent to an unknown destination: no food, no
water, and British planes bombing from above. As the tracks were bombed, the
Nazis let them out and set them to fixing the tracks and then locked them in the
cattle cars again. At Plauen, they could go no further. The Nazis fled. One
officer with a kinder heart unlocked the doors. Half the passengers had died in
the terrible journey. The Teitlebaum sisters extracted themselves from amid the
Outside the scene was picturesque and tranquil: a mountain lake
with a charming guest house. The sisters jumped into the lake, discarding their
They remained in the water, while others, who approached
the guest house, were shot. All night, the Teitlebaum sisters waited in the
water. That is where the French Jewish underground soldiers found them in the
morning. They soldiers gave them clothing and helped them reach the British DP
camp in Neustadt. The Hungarian young women had never met the British, but they
knew English because of their tutoring.
In the DP camp, Nora, the
youngest sister, was courted by Sol Lessman, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto. He
wanted to marry her, but the tradition in the Teitlebaum family was that the
youngest only married after her older sisters. Even after all that had happened
to them, they held to the tradition. Nora sent Sol on a mission, like a knight
of old: “I’ll marry you if you find my only brother, David.”
resourcefulness, Lessman failed. Still, he was unwilling to let his beloved
leave. When the sisters had already boarded a plane of survivors to go to
Sweden, the brash young man came aboard and berated Eva. How could she leave
before she returned to her hometown to seek her husband? What an example was she
to her siblings? So convincing was Lessman that all the sisters deplaned. Eva
headed for Nyirbrator to remove any doubt that her husband had survived and that
she might still be a married woman.
And whom did she meet? There was her
husband, preparing for his wedding the following day! They were reunited. And
who else? Lo and behold, brother David who had just returned from his personal
odyssey in hell.
“Maybe one will survive,” Margit Frankfurt Teitlebaum
had said, staying the hand of her husband. No poison. She and Tuvia were
murdered in Auschwitz. All seven of their children survived the
At Lessman’s initiative, brother David had been found. He was
now free to marry Nora. They have had a loving, happy life together. In their
ninth decade, they’ve retired to Florida, which is where Rita and Ephraim came
to record their story, with Hurricane Isaac roaring outside.
This is just one story that is now preserved.
So many of our families are
lost and forgotten – stories of survivors, stories of those who, like the
hundreds of the Greenfields’ relatives – were murdered by the Nazis.
I retell it to inspire all of us not to let our own
families’ unique stories slip into oblivion. Sometimes all it takes is someone
who cares enough to ask, to take notes, to bring a tape recorder.
enter our succot, those temporary dwellings, let us place the telling and
retelling of the stories who came before us at the heart of the conversation.
Let us welcome all their spirits as honored guests, ushpizim, into our
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.